ND/NF: Short Films Make it Big, Where You'll Find the Next Spike Jonze
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/3.28.2000) -- Spike Jonze, Errol Morris, Tim Burton. . . they all had to start somewhere. And more often than not, it was with short films. At this year's New Directors/New Films series, several promising shorts stand to make it big. Now more than ever, with the explosion of Web venues on the look out for product (IFILM, Atom Films, sputnik7 and every other dotcom looking to make a name for themselves), and the proliferation of cable channels doing the same, the film industry and its audiences are finally poised to take notice.
Unlike Sundance, Toronto or Cannes where most people don't even have the time to pay attention to a short (whether prior to a feature or in its own program), New Directors/New Films' succinctness of programming (basically two features nightly, sometimes accompanied by a preceding short) make for an optimum viewing experience of both. The shorts selected for New Directors also have the benefit of being chosen by the lofty cultural institutions of The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art -- a stamp of artistic approval in and of itself. Also noteworthy, an estimated 450-500 short films overflowed the programmer's mailboxes this year, so for the 11 that made the cut, you've got to be impressed.
As an aside, many of the full-length films don't hold up for their entire running times -- strong narrative set-ups grind to a slow crawl, engaging characters lose our fascination, or quite simply, running times just go on too long for their own good. It's a challenge that many of these first and second time feature directors just don't quite meet. Fortunately for the short filmmaker, 5-15 minutes of story is a lot easier to make engaging than 90.
One director that managed to sustain a whole 26 minutes of screen time is Dewey Nicks whose documentary short "Hell House" is one of the best films in the series, long or short. A photographer with credits in such glossies as Vogue, GQ, and Vanity Fair, Nicks turns a definitely less glamorous and more objective eye on Hell House, a sort of cross between Disney's Haunted House and a fire-and-brimstone sermon. The brainchild of a Colorado Catholic minister out to save souls -- at one count, they claim "417 first-time salvations" -- the Hell House takes its ticket-buyers (usually kids) through various scenes illustrating the evils of homosexuality, abortion, pre-marital sex and drug use -- all of which, of course, will send you to Hell.
Nicks remains surprisingly even-handed. Some viewers might even take the film as a promotional item for the ministry. But there is enough nuttiness to the entire project -- which ends with hugs from Jesus in a white room -- that Nicks need not editorialize or critique. He stands quietly back, letting the ridiculousness and hypocrisies of his subjects subtly come through -- not unlike the early work of Errol Morris.
According to a source close to the film, the producers are in negotiations with Atom Films for a distribution deal. Meanwhile, Nicks just finished another documentary short "Frank Parks The Death Cheater" about a dare devil stunt driver, and is in negotiations to direct his first feature "Smart Ass" for Destination Films.
If "Hell House" takes its inspiration from Disneyland, Mike Mills' "Architecture of Reassurance" (screening this weekend with "Le Blue des Villes") takes its name from a critique of the famed theme park -- a book called "Designing Disney's Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance" came out a few years ago.
Mills, the heir apparent to Spike Jonze, is a designer (Sonic Youth album covers, Ol' Dirty Bastard promo items, a clothing store for Daisy Von Furth, scarves for Marc Jacobs), and like Spike, a skateboard fan (he shot the documentary "Deformer" on famous skater Ed Templeton), photographer (he showed in Paris) and director of music videos (Moby, Air and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, among others) but he clarifies, he's "much taller" than Spike.
Even his style -- a hyperrealism akin to David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" -- resembles some of the video work of Jonze, not to mention that of Jonze's wife Sophia Coppola's first feature "The Virgin Suicides." If ever there was a reason to bring back shorts before features in theatrical release, "Architecture" and "Suicides" share a similarly haunting look at suburbia -- as well as a moody score by French avant-pop duo Air -- would be it.
"Architecture" follows a teenage girl as she ventures over a hill and down into a picture postcard suburbia. As she attempts to fit in -- walking into a house or two, stumbling onto a backyard BBQ, going head-to-head with a real estate agent -- Mills also includes footage of presumably real-life teenage suburbanites speaking about their isolation and their dream houses.
Mills has a knack for making the familiar uncanny and his playfulness with the medium (never over-the-top) is refreshing. Mills isn't far behind his colleague Jonze; he just directed the GAP "West Side Story" ads that ran incessantly during the Oscars, and "Architecture" is represented by powerhouse producer's rep John Sloss, who is presently in negotiations with different cable and Internet companies for a sale.
Another U.S. director, who will likely be courted by the industry, if he isn't already, is Jason Reitman, son of producer/director Ivan Reitman ("Ghostbusters," "Dave"). His short "In God We Trust," which was acquired by Atom Films at Sundance 2000, is a delightful calling card that follows an L.A. dude killed in a car crash and given one last chance to make it into heaven. Refining his craft since his conventional "Operation" played at Sundance 1998, Reitman has firmly established himself as a comedy director ready to join his father in Hollywood.
Carlos Drago's "Above the Dust Level" (Australia) shares Reitman's sense of whimsy and filmmaking sheen -- the story of a lesbian neat-freak, a hypochondriac, a needle-pushing punk and some missing underwear -- but doesn't amount to much more.
Some better imports are to be found in Imogen Murphy's sensitive "Short" (Ireland) about a handsome young guy's troubles with love -- who happens to be only three feet tall (played with honesty and pathos by little person Alan Pentony), Joan Stein's well-lensed but sentimentalist Holocaust film, "One Day Crossing" (USA/Hungary), and "Parelisa" by Josue A. Mendez (Peru), a sensitive narrative portrait of a prostitute and her boyfriend shot verite-style against the backdrop of a small South American town.
In a selection lacking any experimental breakthroughs, Pieter van Hees and Erik Bulckens' "Belgium Strikes Back" (Belgium) -- which combines Jean Claude Van Damme movie clips, videogame imagery, and a weather girl -- and Mike Booth's "Silent Dark Poet" (UK) -- a bolex brothers film ("Keep in a Dry Place and Away from Children") which uses animation and silent-era hand-tinted film to tell a story of repression -- are the closest you'll get for formal innovation. Masayo Nishimura's contributes the only computer-generated film in the program, "Dream" (USA), a brief lyric about a young woman transported by music.